In the Book of Exodus we find the word mezuzah in a most unexpected context. In the beginning of the weekly portion Mishpatim , Scripture enjoins a master to set free his Jewish slave in the seventh year, after six years of service. Whereupon Scripture continues with this remarkable passage:
But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; then shall his master bring him unto the judges, and he shall bring him to the door, or unto the doorpost (mezuzah); and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve forever. (Exodus XXI, 5-6)
In other words, a slave who rejects his freedom is liable to have his ear pierced next to the mezuzah (translated in this context literally as a doorpost). What connection could the mezuzah have to these circumstances?
Commenting on this verse, Rashi brings two exquisite Talmudic homilies. Rabbi Shimon bar Rebbi used to expound on this verse:
The Holy One, Blessed be He said, “The door and doorpost (mezuzah), which were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the doorposts, and I said, ‘For unto me the children of Israel are servants’ (Leviticus XXV, 55). They are My servants, and not servants to servants. And I brought them out from bondage to freedom, yet this man went and acquired a master for himself; let him be pierced in front of them (the door and the mezuzah-doorpost)”.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai used to expound on this verse:
Said the Holy One Blessed be He: “The ear that heard on Mount Sinai at the time when I said ‘For unto me the children of Israel are servants’ (Leviticus XXV, 55) and not servants to servants. Yet this man went and acquired a master for himself; let him be pierced.”
We see from these exegeses that the mezuzah was the witness to the transformation of a nation of slaves into a nation of G‑d’s servants. It is an eternal symbol of freedom.
Paradoxically, the Sages equate freedom with the service of G‑d. Let us consider for a moment the concept of freedom.
In physics, the freedom of a mechanical system is defined in terms of degrees of freedom. An object is said to have one degree of freedom if it can move in a linear direction (one-dimensional space) in one of two directions: forward or backward. Thus one degree of freedom presumes the freedom of choice between two alternatives: moving in one or the opposite direction. If the freedom of motion is expanded to a plane (two-dimensional space), then an object has two choices: to move forward or backward, right or left. Such a system is said to have two degrees of freedom. Accordingly, three degrees of freedom would be assigned to a system that freely moves in a three-dimensional space and thus has three choices of moving in opposite directions. Generally speaking, a mechanical system has n degrees of freedom if it can move in n-dimensional space, or in 2n opposite directions. Or, in other words, a system has n degrees of freedom if it has n choices between moving in 2n alternative directions.
The concept of freedom, as applied in Physics, is intimately connected with a capacity to choose among alternative decisions. We can generalize the above definitions to any system, not necessarily mechanical or even physical. We will say then that any object has n degrees of freedom if it has n choices between 2n alternatives. In other words, freedom is, in fact, freedom of choice. The more choices we have, the more freedom we have, and vice versa. If we wish to define the broadest philosophical concept of freedom, we must include in it a spiritual dimension. In spiritual freedom, we consider choices between moral alternatives – good and evil.
Sefer Yetzirah therefore defines our space as a five-dimensional continuum: four-dimensional space-time and a fifth moral dimension. According to Kabbalah, the world was created by means of ten Sefiroth – Divine emanations: Kether (Crown), Chokhmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding), Chesed (Love, Kindness), Gevurah (Strength, Fear), Tifereth (Mercy, Beauty), Netzach (Victory), Hod (Splendor), Yesod (Foundation), Malkhuth (Kingship). The six lower Sefiroth: Chesed, Gevurah, Tifereth, Netzach, Hod and Yesod are said to constitute the six directions of three-dimensional space. The pair of Chokhmah-Binah constitutes the dimension of time flowing from the past (Chokhmah) to the future (Binah). The pair of Kether-Malkhuth represents a spiritual or moral dimension where Kether represents good and Malkhuth (in this context) represents evil.
It is the constant choice between good and evil that provides us with the ultimate freedom. We can now understand the two above-mentioned Talmudic homilies on a much deeper level. When Rabbi Shimon bar Rebbi connects our scriptural passage about the stubborn slave who refuses to go free to the account of the Exodus from Egypt, he actually says the following: In Egypt, the Jews were slaves, forced to obey their masters, who did not possess any freedom of choice. Therefore, in Egypt, the Jews were not G‑d’s servants, since the very concept of Divine service is fundamentally connected with freedom of choice, as was explained above. By taking them out of their bondage, the Almighty removed any obstacles preventing their exercise of free will in serving Him. Thus, Scripture commands us to take the recalcitrant slave to the mezuzah, which witnessed the Exodus from slavery and became the symbol of freedom.
Real freedom, however, had not yet been obtained with the Exodus from Egypt. The Jews were no longer slaves, but that alone did not make them a free people. As we said before, complete freedom must include choice between good and evil. To exercise this choice, man needs clear definitions of good and evil to know one from the other. This was first granted when G‑d revealed His Torah on Mount Sinai forty-nine days later. It is not at all coincidental that Torah contains 613 mitzvoth (248 positive commandments and 365 prohibitions). They correspond exactly to the 613 aspects of the soul, which in turn correspond to the 248 limbs and 364 ligaments and vessels of the body in the Talmudic anatomy. Thus every aspect of the soul and the body of a Jew was given a freedom of choice to obey or disobey G‑d’s will, thereby giving him complete freedom (precisely 613 degrees of freedom, one for each possible dimension in his system). Only at that moment did the Jewish people become true servants of G‑d.
Sefath Emeth thus notes:
The purpose of all the commandments, both positive and negative, that were given to Israel, is in order that every person of Israel should be free.
Likewise, at Sinai the Gentiles received their seven commandments known as the Noahide laws (prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, incest, stealing, cruelty to animals, and the injunction to establish courts of law). This provided them with a mechanism to be free as well and to be servants of G‑d. As long as a Gentile does this with full recognition that he/she was commanded to do so by G‑d at Sinai, such a person is considered in Jewish law a righteous Gentile and is promised resurrection after death and life in the world to come, as well as full respect and financial support of the Jewish community in this life.
In sum, freedom for the Jewish nation as well as for humanity at large was obtained only at Sinai by means of Divine Revelation. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai thus connects the biblical passage of the slave who refuses manumission with the account of Sinaitic Revelation: the ear that heard the commandments that made us free, and does not want to be free, has to be pierced.
People commonly assume that numerous religious precepts and rituals impose on and limit the freedom of an individual. As we see, quite the contrary is true. This paradox finds its symbolic expression in the Passover Seder. The word Seder means order. On this night, every word and every action is regimented by the Sages as each has profound cosmic significance. And yet this is precisely the way we celebrate our freedom. Freedom can be obtained only in the framework of moral values and an unshakable ethics code. And true freedom can be obtained only when this system of values comes directly from the One who created good and evil, as the Prophet states:
I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil, I am G‑d, I do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)
Indeed, a slave is exempt from almost all the commandments. Only one who can freely accept the yoke of heaven (the obligation to obey G‑d’s will, which provides him/her with freedom of choice) can become free in the ultimate sense. Thus the mezuzah, which was witness to the Exodus from Egypt, the passage from slavery to freedom; and which symbolizes, as was explained before, all the commandments which are the actual mechanism allowing for freedom of choice, is the eternal symbol of freedom itself.
The Zohar states:
And if a man refuses to go forth to freedom, he impairs that place [from which freedom flows down to this world], since he leaves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and accepts the yoke of a master. Therefore, ‘his master shall bring him ... to the door or the mezuzah-doorpost, since this place is the gateway to the higher world.
The mezuzah is not merely a symbol of freedom – esoterically speaking, it is the channel through which the very concept of freedom flows forth to this world.